Welcome to my page on filmed versions of "Les Miserables"
Below, you will find reviews of ten of the filmed versions of "Les Miserables", of which I have provided eight, and I am indebted to Lindsay Addison for her reviews of the 1947 and 1952 versions which, sadly, I have been unable to see.
I hope you find them helpful and informative.
Stuart Fernie (firstname.lastname@example.org)
Les Miserables 1934
I got my first glimpse of the 1934 version while watching the 1995 adaptation with Jean-Paul Belmondo. The clips to which we are treated there intrigued me and after considerable rooting around the internet I managed to obtain a copy on video (to the best of my knowledge it has never been released in Britain).
I was not disappointed. This is quite the fullest and most satisfying cinematic version of Hugo's extraordinary tale yet produced.
Some may find the running time of around four and a half hours quite daunting, but I found that I hardly noticed the time pass.
The reasons for its success are manifold. Firstly the detail and therefore the strength of the original are largely retained. Characters are properly fleshed out, and just as in the original we feel we share the characters' lives and get to know and care about them. The depth and number of characters are not sacrificed to considerations of time and commerce.
Although some of the photography appears dated by modern standards, Raymond Bernard's literate script and direction are stimulating and advance the narrative at a steady pace (despite the impression created by the running time). He is masterful in the creation of atmosphere in both intimate and crowd scenes. For example the film is quite spectacular in its depiction of the 1832 uprising, yet it is deeply moving in the scenes involving Valjean and the Bishop.
The music (by Arthur Honegger) has great dignity and is entirely apt to the tenor of the film and the themes it embraces.
However, if the real strength of the piece is in the depth and conviction of its characters, their cinematic success is due in no short measure to the quality of the acting. Fantine (Josseline Gael) is perhaps a little melodramatic for modern tastes, and Javert (Charles Vanel) lacks a truly tragic quality, but all told the performances are faithful to the original and convincing, and none more so than Harry Baur as Valjean. His immense physical presence and slow, controlled delivery, combined with his ability to express his inner feelings with little more than a look or a moment's hesitation command our respect and sympathy, making him the perfect incarnation of the tormented but determined Valjean.
It wreaks sincerity and a genuine desire to transfer not just the story, but the spirit of the original onto the big screen.
Good news for those of you in DVD region 1: A DVD version of Bernard's "Les Miserables" is about to be released. Check out this link.
Les Miserables 1935
Probably the best known of the cinematic adaptations, with Fredric March as Valjean and Charles Laughton as Javert, this is nonetheless a somewhat sanitised and flawed version.
Short on detail and lacking in grit, this is a fairly blinkered if well-intentioned version, concentrating on legal injustice and the plight of released convicts. Even Marius delivers a speech criticising the State for its treatment of ex-cons rather than broadening the canvas to discuss other social issues.
Fantine's lamentable situation is sanitised to avoid all mention of prostitution, and while we still feel considerable sympathy for her, the "cleaning up" of her plight also has the effect of lessening the depth of our feelings for her.
The poetry and tragedy of the original are not well served as the storyline itself is cut short and characters disappear completely or are significantly altered to suit the "new" framework.
Fredric March is sincere, but perhaps lacking in gravitas. Laughton (an actor I have greatly admired in other productions) is just not right as Javert. Whether this is due to the script or his playing is open to debate, but to have Javert display emotion (the trembling of the lip!), and to have him attempt to place blame on the law rather than accept responsibility for his actions is to miss the point.
A more adolescent version than the altogether more rounded, complete, and adult French version which immediately preceded it.
I Miserabili 1947
While it bears the title "Les Miserables" and the characters' names are the same, this film has very few other resemblances to the original story.
While some changes must be made in adapting a book, it seems almost as if the writers and director were trying to see just how poorly they could represent the novel on film. The changes they made detract from the story instead of clarifying or augmenting its themes. The beginning sequences are fairly true (excluding that the baker shoots Valjean as he makes off with the loaf of bread, leaving the audience to wonder that he's still alive in the next scene), but the rest of the story wanders farther and farther afield, and the characters--especially Jean Valjean--only vaguely resemble their literary counterparts.
The most accurately portrayed characters are the Bishop of Digne (an uncredited role), who exudes calm assurance and kindness, if in a somewhat disinterested way, and Javert, played by John Hinrich, who is stern, relentless, and confident, although he tends toward woodenness and has some pretty bad dialogue to deliver. However, Gino Cervi as Valjean, is a travesty. Admittedly, the script doesn't help him either. While he makes a fine surly convict (even if he does look a little like a cross between William Shatner and Liberace), he never progresses beyond that.
Throughout the film, he threatens people--Cosette included-shouts, and tries to strong--arm his way out of situations he doesn't like. He pulls a gun on Thenardier and warns him not to come any closer or he'll "settle his account for good." Valjean's noble nature, the stoic, self-sacrificing, gentle man, is nowhere in evidence. Instead of showing affection for her, he slaps Cosette and spitefully tells her, when he learns of her love for Marius, then in that case, they're leaving for England sooner than he had planned.
Without the Valjean of the novel, the story is meaningless and his actions have no significance. Yes, in the novel he must struggle to make the right choices, but instead of showing that conflict, director Riccardo Freda only wanted to portray a glowering, threatening, selfish Valjean. In the face of such a man, Javert seems justified in pursuing him, and Javert's final revelation about Valjean's goodness has no substance.
There are so many flaws in the plot, it's impossible to list them all, but I feel a brief summary is in order to convey the dismantling the novel underwent in the making of this movie. We first meet Valjean while he's laboring in a prison quarry, and he attempts several escapes in needlessly silly sequences. After being saved by the Bishop, Valjean starts an iron works (an anachronism, as the Industrial Revolution hadn't progressed that far by that time).
Fantine does have a very brief scene in which she seems to be soliciting customers as a prostitute, but her first "customer" puts snow down her dress, precipitating her arrest. There is no Fauchelevent or cart episode, and Arras is totally left out. Instead Valjean confesses via letter! After getting advice from Fantine's nurse! Afterward, Valjean escapes arrest when a random sympathetic iron worker starts a fire in the factory and the police cannot follow him through the flames.
After the rescue of Cosette, things get really bad. Perhaps it's a bad omen that when Valjean meets her, the trees still have all their leaves...despite the fact that Cosette tells him that it's Christmas Eve. There is no convent, although Valjean escapes over a wall with Cosette. Time passes, via a cheesy voice-over, and Cosette has grown into...her mother! No, really, the actress who played Fantine (Valentina Cortesa) also plays Cosette. As an actress, she's effective as Fantine, but too old to believably play Cosette. So, Cosette meets Marius when he hides in her house after a police raid on the revolutionaries' printing operation (reminiscent of the March / Laughton movie), and he leaves his address for her. Valjean then becomes the object of Thenardier's revenge when he goes to Gorbeau Street (not Gorbeau House) to warn Marius to keep away from his daughter. But eventually, only after Cosette begs, he goes to the barricade, rescues Marius, and runs into Javert. Now, Javert was never at the barricade, never captured, and Valjean never saved him-but (get this), Marius is the son of the prefect of police, and as such he is immune.
Javert has orders to bring Marius home if he's found, and he loyally carries those orders out before releasing Valjean, writing a letter of resignation, and drowning himself in the Seine. Although why he didn't expose the prefect's corruption, or resign over that rather than over the surly Valjean, is a mystery.
So, Valjean would seem to be happily set with Marius, Cosette, and Marius's father, but he finds out that Thenardier has visited. He goes back to Thenardier's lodgings and confronts him, whereupon Thenardier pulls a gun on him, shoots Valjean (yes, really), trips through some sort of trapdoor and falls to his death. Valjean sees this, clutches his wounded chest with a pained look on his face, and the frame freezes and the words "The End" are displayed. Now, if that's not a slaughter of a classic, I don't know what is.
Despite all the questionable changes, the most puzzling thing is the point of making this film. It almost seems as though, from the film's portrayal of Valjean and its concluding scene, that the moral is Valjean got what he deserved. He saved Cosette, but wasn't worthy to live any longer. I'm left wondering if anyone making this movie actually read (and liked!) the book.
Viewers, for their part, are likely to be left unmoved, with no sympathy for Valjean, no sense of the tragic aspect of Javert's death, and not much happiness for the union of Cosette and Marius, their romance having taken almost no screen time. Unless you plan to make fun of it, the film is hard to watch, particularly for those who know the real story. Of course, if you're making fun of it, at two hours, there's plenty of material....
Les Miserables 1952
Unfortunately this is another film version that fails to capture the spirit of the novel while rearranging and omitting significant chunks of plot. It doesn't re-write quite as much as the 1947 version; instead, it's more like "Les Mis Lite."
While considerable attention is given to some sequences, such as the opening that shows us Jean Valjean's brutal life in prison, important scenes are left out completely. There are no Thenardiers (just mention of innkeepers looking after Cosette), there is no cart scene (though Valjean stops a rich man's runaway carriage when he first arrives in Montreuil-sur-Mer and ingratiates himself to the townspeople), nor is Fantine's story given any screen time. Her dismissal from the factory is explained in a few sentences as she blames the mayor for her arrest. Without Thenardiers, Valjean can make no journey to the inn; instead he arrives with Cosette, who looks about eleven and not at all as if she's been treated badly, and she and Fantine enjoy a tearful reunion.
Valjean's most serious responsibility, to care for Cosette in Fantine's stead, is not emphasized. Rather, with the French mini-series, this version makes the unfathomable decision to hint at Valjean's being in love with Cosette. One of the worst moments is a scene in which they recite lines from Romeo and Juliet. (The second-worst moment may be when, after giving his opinion that Fantine probably won't live, Valjean asks, "Does your mother know she's going to die, Cosette?") Valjean's greatest sacrifice, giving up Cosette to Marius, is made trivial and silly in this version, as Valjean is shamed into it when he intercepts a letter from Marius, urging Cosette not to be "prey" to Jean Valjean's selfishness.
As the lead, Michael Rennie does show some of Valjean's goodness, but as with other versions, this one fails to adequately show his struggle to become a good man and his ultimate hard-won success. Rennie is always just an okay guy, not remarkable good or generous; he just doesn't have the presence for the role. That Valjean has a friend named Robert who knows all along that he's an ex-con and who helps him throughout the story doesn't help. Further, Cosette knows that Valjean isn't her real father, and for Cosette to be aware of Valjean's past undermines both characters.
Debra Paget and Cameron Mitchell have a strange, lukewarm relationship as Marius and Cosette. They meet when Valjean helps Marius hide from the police in the convent, and Cosette tends Marius's wound. But Cosette is a reluctant lover, telling Marius that she can't leave her father, and when he runs into opposition from Valjean, who is planning to flee to England, and Cosette, who is determined to go with him, Marius seems to give up, telling Valjean, "Be careful of your next rival. You may not dispose of him so easily."
Javert (Robert Newton) is a revamped Charles Laughton who assigns blame to the law rather than to himself and comes off as more spiteful than duty-bound. He doesn't attempt to resign after denouncing the mayor. Instead of being a spy on the barricades, Javert follows Valjean there and is subsequently saved after a bizarre exchange in which Valjean tells him, "You're sick. Your mind is sick," and he replies "You want me to see the nobility of your soul. I spit on your nobility." However, Newton does obligingly kill himself (after Robert tells him he's wrong about Valjean), so that Valjean, Cosette, Marius, and Robert can enjoy a happy ending.
Overall, gratuitous changes in the plot, apparently in an attempt to streamline events, and a lack of focus on Valjean's self-sacrifice or really any of the nobler emotions in any of the characters, make this version superficial and uninspired.
Reviews(1947 and 1952 versions) by Lindsay Addison
lindsay_addison AT hotmail DOT com
Les Miserables 1957
This version is the first widescreen and full colour adaptation of the novel (adapted and directed by Michel Audiard). It is also the result of a Franco - Italian collaboration undoubtedly intended to broaden the appeal of the film throughout Europe, but which may in the end have done it no great favours. The actors appear to deliver their lines in their native tongue and are later dubbed into French, causing a certain lack of spontaneity in both the delivery of the lines and in the interaction between the players.
Fairly theatrical in its conception, the film is rather heavy and has a somewhat "staged" feel to it, with little camera mobility, and a general feeling that the subject matter is being treated with a little too much reverence or even awe.
That said, Jean Gabin is an excellent Valjean - he is quiet and thoughtful, giving the impression he has suffered but is handling his torment with great dignity and stoicism. He is particularly strong in his scenes with Bourvil (Thenardier) and Bernard Blier (Javert), lending authority and sincerity to the part.
Bernard Blier as Javert is convincing as a man devoted to his work and who believes utterly in the principles he defends, but lacks any element of sympathy or tragedy when Valjean releases him from the barricades and when he discovers Valjean has saved Marius by dragging him through the sewers. This turning point, marking Javert's doubts about the direction of his entire life, is dealt with somewhat summarily in the film, and must be considered something of a weakness.
In contrast, we have perfect casting and playing in Bourvil as Thenardier. Here is a Thenardier who is at once amusing and vicious, cunning and intelligent. It is to the director's great credit that Thenardier's part has not been as significantly reduced as it so often is in film versions, and Bourvil certainly gets under the skin of the character.
There is much to savour and enjoy, but I find it a little staid and too self-aware for my taste.
Les Miserables 1978
Although much admired by some, I'm afraid I find this a rather workman-like production.
Produced as a television film by Sir Lew Grade in 1978, it shares the weaknesses of many of his other excursions into the cinema in the late seventies and early eighties - a lack of sparkle and decent script. The whole production gives the impression of going through the motions rather woodenly, rendering a well-intentioned and undoubtedly sincere version which, sadly, is quite lacking in spirit. Perhaps this version also suffered from an excess of admiration, bordering on awe, for the original, but for me the actors never really "become" their roles, but "play" them.
Richard Jordan is earnest and sincere, but is too young for the part and appears limited to just one register as Valjean ages, while Anthony Perkins plays Javert as heartless and unbending, and lacks the spark of ultimate understanding and humanity necessary to suggest tragedy rather than jubilation on his death..
Many of the other roles are played by well-known actors whose presence would appear to be of more significance than the parts they play.
Once again Thenardier is almost non-existent, and various liberties are taken with characters and events, the most glaring omission being Valjean's heartbreak and death (replaced by a happy ending!). The lack of emotion, however, is due principally to the script which, while relatively faithful to a large number of the events of the book, does little to relay the emotions aroused by these events. I felt the direction was uninspired and left the viewer curiously uninvolved.
For all that, it is an honest and genuine attempt at putting the story on the screen, and deserves credit as such.
Les Miserables 1982 (French Television/cinema release)
It was with some trepidation that I approached this version - it is not very well known, and television production values were not always what they might have been in the seventies and eighties.
However, I am delighted to say I was very pleasantly surprised by this production directed and written by Robert Hossein. While there are a number of omissions and relatively minor changes to the chronology, it maintains pace and interest, and is generally very faithful and detailed. Indeed there are very effective scenes dealing with Valjean's arrival in Digne, and Monseigneur Myriel, which other producers have not seen fit to include in their productions.
It may not have the dynamism or energy of the Depardieu version, nor the intensity of the 1934 version, but it remains a very worthy addition which does much to capture the emotions of the characters, and render the themes of the book.
Valjean's motivation might, perhaps, have been more clearly depicted - we see his pain and the result in his determination to redeem himself, but the reasoning behind the change is left to the audience to devine. That said, Lino Ventura is an excellent Valjean and is surely the main reason for the success of the film. He is convincing, sincere, believable, and touching. I was also struck by the way in which Hossein depicted Fantine's degradation through a series of stills showing her decline and deterioration in health while we hear readings of Thenardier's letters to her about Cosette.
Javert is seen as cold, principled, and determined, but to the great credit of the production, he is not depicted as some evil monster.
Les Miserables 1995
Claude Lelouch's 1995 film is more an adaptation of Hugo's tale, rather than a filmed version of it. He explores the universal themes of the book and the pertinence of Hugo's "message" to our history, here applying them to the French experience of Nazi Occupation during the Second World War.
This is the story of Henri Fortin (an excellent Jean-Paul Belmondo - what a Valjean he would have made!), who sees parallels between his own life and the stories of Valjean et al. It is also a tale of intolerance and love as told through the experiences of a Jewish family forced to flee Nazi persecution, and how they are helped by Henri Fortin whose evolution into a caring humanitarian forms the core of the film.
Told on a grand scale, Lelouch captures the essential humanity of his characters and has produced a gripping and moving film which is a fitting tribute to the original, a tale which gives us the story of an era through the lives of a myriad of characters, touching on themes of love, faith, revolution and tolerance, among others. He takes these universal themes and creates parallels between his own characters and those of Victor Hugo while giving us the story of a different era, but one which shares similar problems, thus emphasising the continued relevance and validity of Hugo's original.
Some parallels are more successful and complete than others. Here, the Javert character blindly follows orders, and may have doubts, but he is cruel and selfish, and it is difficult to have any sympathy for him. World War 2 replaces the 1832 attempted revolution, and the experiences of the original characters are mirrored in the experiences of the 1995 characters, though not always by their direct equivalents. M. Lelouch succeeds in tapping our emotions better than most of the more recent "straight" adaptations, and we have the fun of trying to "spot the parallel".
That Hugo's themes/points should be equally applicable to an era 100 years after that of the original is testimony to Hugo's insight and the strength of his narrative. However, it can also be regarded as a sad reflection on 20th century European history.
The music by Francis Lai (among others) brilliantly captures and enhances the film's themes and emotions.
Les Miserables 1998
The most recent English-speaking version, Bille August's film is spectacular and lovingly produced, but the director has taken various "shortcuts" (even liberties?) with both the characters and events.
Apparently filmed entirely on location, there is a coldness, even at times an unpleasantness, pervading the film.
The tormented but determined Valjean is well played by Liam Neeson, indeed the acting is of a high standard throughout - my main quibble is with the "shortcuts" (made, perhaps, due to considerations of time and commerce?).
I find it hard to accept that Valjean would strike the Bishop - in the book he considered violence but shrank from it.
There should be no hint of romance between Valjean and Fantine - both are lacking in self-esteem, and Fantine is far too ill!
Javert would not beat Fantine - this is quite unnecessary as he is the law, and he would not allow such personal weakness to affect his duties. Furthermore this encourages the audience to hate Javert, therefore losing audience sympathy and understanding at his death.
Marius does not have the strength or ambition to lead the student revolt.
Thenardier has all but disappeared! This is a mistake common to most English-speaking versions. The removal of Thenardier only accentuates the contrast between Valjean and Javert, diminishing our sympathy for Javert who is seen as Valjean's evil enemy rather than the principled (if mistaken and flawed) defender of society he is.
The film ends with Javert's death, and there is little sadness or regret as Valjean witnesses the event. It is probably wrong to have Valjean witness the event at all - Javert's suicide is the result of inner turmoil which is weakened by having him explain himself to Valjean. It should also be recalled that Valjean had spared/saved his life at the barricades, and so he is unlikely to accept Javert's death without argument or some attempt to dissuade him from committing suicide.
Having said all that, I found the film enjoyable in its own right, but I don't regard it as a very true or complete version of Hugo's tale.
Les Miserables 2000 (French Television adaptation)
One of my favourite versions, second only to the 1934 adaptation.
Six hours in length, Depardieu as Valjean, Malkovich as Javert, rich in detail and emotionally engaging - what more can one ask?
As with the 1934 version, this treatment is very full, rich in detail, and therefore retains the strength of the original. It contains a number of alterations to the narrative, but remains faithful to the essence of the characters, though I found Valjean's obsessive behaviour toward Cosette a little exaggerated, and too little emphasis laid on his sense of duty, responsibility, and lack of self-esteem, as his motivation. The direction is crisp, the script intelligent and engaging, and the acting convincing and moving.
Depardieu is an excellent Valjean, articulate and ultimately tragic, while Malkovich is entirely convincing and unusually "human" as Javert. Christian Clavier is splendidly scheming, selfish and low, while Virginie Ledoyen is suitably appealing as Cosette.
This is a confident and intelligent production which is not afraid of its origins.
The 1934 version remains, and I suspect will always remain, my favourite. The key to "Les Miserables" is love, and the '34 version succeeds in appealing to the heart better than any other I have seen. It is undoubtedly melodramatic in places, but this is perhaps a style which is not unsuitable for the recounting of Hugo's tale, and this may explain why more modern and realistic versions have fared less well in transferring the story to the big screen. This may also account for the inordinate success of the musical which appeals to the heart and the spirit.
I hope you found these thoughts interesting and helpful. Further information on these films, and others, may be obtained by consulting the Internet Movie Data Base at http://www.imdb.com/ , searching for "Les Miserables".
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